By: Robin Schaffer | 24th March 2016

    3D printing has seen a surge in recent years with the advent of smaller, cheaper models designed for home use, but this technology isn’t confined just to hobbyists. Businesses can use it to speed up the design process while reducing costs in new product development. In fact, 3D printing has become such an important step in the design cycle of most products that many items used daily were probably facilitated in part by this manufacturing process. One such instance is in the prototyping stage. 3D printing can be a vital tool to create cost effective working or non-working prototypes and develop products.

    In the past few years 3D printers have become more available, and it continues to pick up momentum as more people invest in the industry. Its limits are continually being pushed as home printers become cheaper, ranging from a couple thousand dollars to a couple hundred, allowing more people to experiment. As such, this technology has become a hotbed of innovation.

    Toys, aerospace parts, and prosthetics are some fields where 3D printing has inspired creativity, but the technology isn’t only limited to plastic and metal. 3D printed food is being researched as an option for astronauts while in space, and some of the biggest breakthroughs in medicine have been enabled by 3D printing. Bio-printing is an entire subset that deals entirely in the printing of living tissue which can then be used for transplantation, research, toxicology and drug discovery.

    With machines capable of feats inconceivable just a decade ago, the high expectations placed on 3D printing are not surprising. 3D printing has been hailed as the next industrial revolution and will supposedly change the face of manufacturing, but some argue that it is still unfeasible to produce the majority of manufactured parts due to high manufacturing costs. Many believe, rather, that this process can complement existing manufacturing processes.

    Whatever your stance, this technology is impossible to ignore, and despite the complexity of this process, it is instrumental that one can at least answer its most basic question: ‘What exactly is 3D printing?’

    3D Printing creates three-dimensional solid objects from digital models through a layering process. The digital models must first be drawn in a computer-aided design (CAD) program before being broken down. There is a steep learning curve in the design process, but once it is grasped it is an excellent tool to unleash one’s creativity since, as it is often said, “if you can draw it; you can make it.” Once drawn, the item is then built up layer by layer – a process which may take hours or even days depending on size, material and thickness.

    Known by names such additive manufacturing, rapid prototyping, stereolithography, and architectural molding, 3D printing is decades old. Invented in the 1980’s by Charles Hull, this manufacturing technique was not feasible as machines cost over $100,000 at that time. It wasn’t until 2009 that it picked up pace, entering the market commercially at less than a tenth of the 1980’s price.

    Since then, alternative printing processes have emerged which predominately differ in the way the layers are built to create parts. As technology continues to evolve, 3-D printing becomes more viable, with projections that its global market will grow from $1.6 billion in 2015 to $13.4 billion in 2018. With 3-D printing as widespread as it is now, countries apart from the United States are making strides in the industry. China claims its 3D printing market will double yearly; South Korea has created a 3D Printing Industry Development Council, and in Taiwan, researchers have already created a $100 smartphone-powered 3D printer which literally brings this technology in the palms of their hands.

    This is an exciting time for manufacturing, but, as mentioned before, mass production remains a challenge in 3D printing due to its high costs. Still, as printers increase in speed and scale, 3D printing has been and will probably continue to be a major disruptive technology across several industries. Even now, it has revolutionized custom manufacturing, placing even more power in the developers’ hands.

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